Maybe you’ve known for years that your child is transgender, and you’re now looking for more information to navigate the teen years. Or, maybe your teen has just come out as trans, and you are feeling a little lost and curious about how to best support them. This article offers some key definitions and tips for loving and raising trans teens, and also provides a suggested list of books you may find helpful.
Gender vs. Sexuality
It is important to understand that gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing. Here are some quick definitions:
Gender Identity is the gender one identifies as (often represented as either female or male, but also includes identifying as both, neither, or somewhere along the gender spectrum).
Gender Expression is the way in which one publicly displays or enacts their gender. This includes dress, expressions, voice, behavior, and pronouns.
Sexual Orientation is the gender(s) one is attracted to. Common categories of sexual orientation can include identifying as queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, pansexual, and/or asexual.
What does it mean to identify as a transgender youth? Transgender youth are children and adolescents who identify as a gender that is different from that which they were assigned at birth. A trans-girl is a girl who was assumed to be male at birth, and who identifies as female. A trans-boy is a boy who was assumed to be female at birth, and who identifies as male.
Here are some tips for supporting and parenting a transgender teen:
Remember they are still teenagers. The teen years are difficult for most families. Teenagers are discovering their own independence and uniqueness, and often the road to that discovery involves pushing back against the boundaries and rules of their family and community. Being transgender is not a rebellion or a phase. However, because they are teenagers, transgender teens will still be exploring their own independence and rebelling in ways that can make you as the parent uncomfortable. It is important to understand that the tension and conflict of these years is a result of them being teenagers, and not a result of them being trans.
Do not misgender your teen. One of the main ways that you can show your love and support for your teen is to use the pronoun they have chosen for themselves (she/her, he/him, they/them). This can be confusing, especially because you have likely spent years using a different pronoun for them. When you forget or slip up, apologize directly and make the effort to make this change. This especially is important when your teen is not around- misgendering your teen behind their back shows a lack of respect and creates confusion. If you do accidentally misgender them behind their back, simply correct yourself in the moment to the person you are talking to. You do not need to explain further.
Be careful about what you share about your teen, or offering other people intimate information. It is your teen’s choice and privilege to announce and control their gender identity. If your teen has come out to only a select group of people, respect these boundaries. In addition, know that you do not have to answer other people’s invasive questions about your teen being transgender. People are naturally curious and can be nosy, but that does not mean you owe them any information. Many people feel that they have the right to ask transgendered people intimate details about their gender, bodies, sexuality, and relationships. This is rude and it is not okay. Model for your teenager appropriate boundaries and respect, including letting people know that they do not have the right to ask for information about your teenager’s body, genitals, or sexuality.
Be aware of some of the practical difficulties trans teenagers face. There are some logistical considerations to transitioning that your teen may not be fully sure how to handle or how to ask for help about. Trans boys who are starting to have breasts may want a chest binder (a garment worn as an undershirt to flatten the chest, and which is safer than other methods such as taping). They may also be feeling confusion and frustration about the appearance of hips and how to handle periods. Trans girls who are starting to get facial or body hair may want support with hair removal, and may be feeling frustrated and confused about bodily changes, voice changes, and dealing with unwelcome erections. If you have the kind of relationship with your teen where it feels comfortable talking about and offering support on these topics, educate yourself and see if they feel up to talking about it. However, if these topics are not part of your family’s way of talking together, or if your teenager absolutely does not want to talk to you about it, that’s ok too. It is still important to know that these are struggles they are dealing with, and there are other ways to offer them support.
See if your teen would like to join a Trans or Gender Questioning group in your area. It is completely normal for your teenager to not want to talk to you about their changing body or sexuality. And, as a teenager who is also transgender, they may have questions that go a little beyond what their peer group or sexual education class can answer. Connecting them (if they want) to a trans or gender questioning group means that they can get some of those answers and support from the lived experience of other people in their area. Similarly, they may want to consider counselling with a trans-aware and supportive counsellor so that they have a safe place to talk about their feelings. If they don’t want to join a group or go to counselling? No worries! They don’t need to, and now they know that you are open about helping them with these connections in the future if they change their mind.
Be aware of the increased risk of suicide. The suicide risk among trans youth is terrifyingly high, especially for trans youth who have encountered rejection, violence, or anger in their families and communities. By loving your teenager, continuing to offer practical support, and helping them emotionally through this transition, you are already helping to mitigate this risk. If you notice signs of distress, such as self-harm or drastic changes in mood or eating habits, look for help from trans-supportive and aware sources such as counselling or your family doctor. As well, in any home with children and teenagers, it is important to make sure that firearms are securely locked up separately from ammunition, and that large quantities of potentially dangerous medications (including Tylenol, sleeping pills, and mental health medications) are not easily accessible.
Most important: love your teen! How does your family show love? Do you hug? Say “I love you.”? Do things together? Have meals together? Whatever your family’s way of showing love, continue to do that! Remind your teenager what unique and wonderful things you love about them. Let them know that you love them for who they are, and that they will always have your love and support. Teenagers may seem like they are ignoring or embarrassed by comments like this, and they still need to hear them.
Still struggling? If you are feeling lost or confused sometimes about navigating the teenage years and/or navigating their gender transition, that is completely normal. Most parents feel lost in these years too. You may want to consider counselling for yourself so as to work through your own confusion or fear in order to fully show up for and love your teen.
The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens by Stephanie Brill & Lisa Kenney
Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community Edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth
Raising the Transgender Child by Dr. Michele Angello & Ali Bowman
The Gender Creative Child by Diane Ehrensaft PhD
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